Of Mothers and Memories…

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My mother passed away 11 years ago on Thanksgiving night.  I struggle to remember the exact date of her death.  The anniversary of it is inextricably attached to Thanksgiving.

She was diagnosed with Adrenal Cortical Cancer in late September. The following nine weeks are a confabulation of disturbed memory and racing recollections of traveling to and from Rhode Island.  Weekends were spent with my dying mother and distraught father, and weekdays trying to refocus on my family.  My children were so young that my daughter has little memory of a grandmother who loved her in a special way. She was the only granddaughter in the mix of boys. Grace was 6 years old on Thanksgiving night 2005.

When I cleaned my mom’s closet out weeks after her death, I found a stockpile of beautiful, expensive dresses, sweaters, and coats that would see Grace through several years of special occasions.  A corner of the closet was filled with precious items which surely cost too much.  My daughter was something of a life-size doll for both my mom and me.  Grace knew indulgence in fashion from the moment she was born.

After the whirlwind of wake and funeral, as I tried to settle into a life absent my mother, I received cards on a daily basis for weeks.  My father, in his heartbreak and with a slow shake of his bald head, would repeat this mantra in response to the outpouring of condolence, “People are awfully good.”

There was one such card that affected me more than any other.  I thought I had saved it, but could not find it, as I sifted through special things this week.  It doesn’t matter. While the words may be imprecise, the message is indelible.
My friend, Betsy, who lost her mom as a young woman, shared this sentiment (now paraphrased):

“When your mother dies, you lose your North Star; your guiding light.  For some time, you will find yourself imbalanced, your navigation will be off.  Regardless of your age, it changes your world.  It is only understood by those who are motherless.”

 
That beautiful letter moved into my soul the moment I read it on a cold, quiet December afternoon.  I was 43 when I lost my mom and Betsy’s letter was like a gift. Even in my incalculable grief, I understood that the death of one’s mother is an equalizing human experience.  In the natural course of living, parents pass before their children.  All of my friends and cousins who still had their mom’s, who sympathized, but could not empathize with the depth of my loss, would someday experience the same.  To be sure, I was imbalanced for quite some time when my mother left this earth.

In the last two years, I have attended too many funerals, watched too many friends and cousins say goodbye to too many mothers.  It feels like time to take a cue from Betsy.

My mother’s greatest gift to me was her example of faith.  She was an epic church goer, a Catholic from the tips of her toes to the top of her head.  I am not any of those things, but there is a moment I call upon when my own struggle is mighty.  My mom might say this moment was the work of The Holy Spirit.

Despite the fact that I had philosophical issues with the “Big C” Catholic Church, my local parish had been home to me.  I was a catechist and you could find my family, 6th row left of center, each Sunday morning at 9 am.  I loved the ritual of the Catholic mass. The predictability and familiarity of the liturgy were like meditation for me. Once my mother passed, church became impossible; the smell of incense or a single organ note undid me.  I vividly remember that first Christmas Eve, entering the church with my family, finding our pew and, as the congregation settled in, the choir led with “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful.”  Grief grabbed me by the throat and I let go of my 6-year-old daughter’s plump, impossibly soft hand and made my way out of the church with as much dignity as I could muster. The cold night air was a welcome relief, and I wept as I walked the parking lot for the hour it took for mass to be over.  The strains of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and my mother’s favorite Christmas Hymn, “O Holy Night”, wafted from the Church into the night air. Each note like a stab into my already broken heart. I knew then, that Church would never be the same for me again.

For two months following my mom’s death, night was my demon.  I battled through the daylight hours, but once my head hit the pillow, unsummoned tears would leak from my eyes and my mind raced around every detail of the previous months.  Exhaustion ushered me to sleep, but dreams of my mother woke me nearly each night.  I dreamt, not of my mother as I knew her, but of the diminished her, twisted with the pain of cancer that consumed her body.  It was as though I never knew her whole.  Her pain was a nightly visitor.

The first waking moments for those grieving are predictable.  It takes but a moment of consciousness to remember the pain that has been dreamt away in the deepness of sleep.  As consciousness nears, the ache rebuilds.  I woke most mornings of those two months willing fresh tears away.

As the world turned to a new year, a challenge I was not ready for presented itself.  My husband’s father had died the previous January.  He was a kind, benevolent, smart, wonderful soul.  A Mass of Memorium was scheduled on the anniversary of his death.  I could not fathom surviving it.  I wanted to summon the courage I knew I needed to do the thing I knew was right.  I spent the week before oddly “psyching myself up” to gut it out for him, to be an example for my children.  The night before, I crawled into bed and prayed that I could be relieved, Dear God, just once, of dreams of my sick mother.  I fell asleep that mid-January night, determined to rise to the occasion regardless of which visitors came to me in my sleep.

All I can remember of that night is that when I woke tears did not well, nor did bad dreams fly to my consciousness.  What did was this:

My mother and I walking the boardwalk of Weekapaug’s Fenway Beach, both of us carrying beach chairs in our hands.  The sun was high and the sand was soft and my mom looked lovely, in her skirted bathing suit and white cover-up.  We set our chairs down, side by side, and the waves were gentle and our toes massaged the sand.  That’s all I recall of my dream on that January night, and it is enough.

I believe that The Holy Spirit visited me that night.  That my mother sent me a message that went like this: “All is well with me, and you will be fine.  Go be who you need to be. Don’t worry anymore.”

And I did.  I went and honored my father-in-law in the way that he deserved.  Any tears I shed in the church were for the memory of him.

My grief did not end that January night; it remains in my soul.  My friend, Betsy, was right.  I lost my North Star when my mother passed.  I am not so sure, 11 years later, that my navigational ability has improved.  I remain a bit unsettled but feel as though I am finding my way.

I dedicate this writing to the women in my life whom I love.  Many of you have lost your North Stars.  Many of you have yet to.  In your grief or grief to come, I wish you peace and the surety that the Holy Spirit is present.  I have experienced him/her many times since that January night in 2006.  Listen for it in your sadness, be open to it in your grief.  What a lovely gift for a mother to a daughter. It is as precious as the perfectly smocked dresses my mother bought her grandchild 12 years ago. It is as perfect as a lovely, handwritten note from a friend that would resonate in my heart forever.

From The Sublime To The …

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Joanne and I made a stop at My Wednesday Place en route to an epic Halloween Party several weekends ago.  We wanted to share our transformation with our bartender friend.  The mustache was the only sticking point. The damn thing just wouldn’t stay stuck.  When Alan made us laugh, it popped out of place.  That wouldn’t do, I planned to laugh all night.

“You two should paint mustaches on.  Do you have the eyeliner?”  This suggestion came after he made a valiant attempt to wrestle square patches of Scotch tape on the fake mustaches without success.

Eyeliner?   Eureka!  Joanne and I hastened to the bathroom and voila:  Two Charlie Chaplin’s replete with bamboo canes, bowler hats and unfettered by ill-fitting mustaches.

Earlier that evening, in the privacy of my bedroom, I slipped on the impossibly comfortable trousers I had found at Good Will; men’s trousers, of course.  What a revelation!  The waist did not taper and the pants hung on my hips without a tug.  The flaws of a middle-aged woman’s body disappear in trousers, no worry of middle section, or buttocks, or designers who try to convince you that you’re never too old for the skinny jean. Katherine Hepburn and Diane Keaton knew the secret of men-style trousers!

The white, cotton, men’s dress shirt felt clean and crisp on my skin, and the tweed vest, when buttoned,  gave me a hint of waist and bound my ample chest. No concerns tonight that a breast might peak out of a cup just because I danced. The blazer topped it all and slid on, its’silken lining a feminine secret stashed in a man’s jacket. Who knew?

Next came the shoes. When you select a transgender costume, the shoes are tricky business.  For $10, I found the perfect pair of barely worn size 8 ½  oxford tie black shoes.  Here’s a secret – with the exception of flip-flops they are the most comfortable shoes I have ever worn.  No wonder Cinderella lost that glass slipper. You could dance all night in men’s oxfords.

The makeup was imprecise, white base and smokey grays to evoke silent films and black liner, smudged around the lids to accentuate Chaplin’s forlorn innocence.  Rather than tweeze eyebrows into submission, Chaplin’s face called for us to add volume.  What a concept,  more hair, not less!

My night as Chaplin was pure delight. I danced often and my stride away from the band was downright jaunty! My feet never tired and the oxfords did not squeeze my toes. I gave no thought to my imperfect face or aging body.  It occurred to me, as I said goodnight to a wonderful evening, that, well… It’s a man’s world, baby!

Tuesday, we elected a new President.  Two elections ago, I supported Barack Obama.  I was taken with his countenance, soaring rhetoric and, yes, his hopeful vision for this country.  He has been imperfect, but I still believe he is a good man.  History will ultimately weigh in on his tenure.  I am old enough to know that snap judgments on a Presidency are pure folly.  The dust needs to settle before the history books are written.

I did vote for Hillary Clinton last Tuesday.

The day after the Halloween party, I saw a bumper sticker on a car in my hometown.

It read:  “Trump That Bitch.”

It stole my Chaplin afterglow

That following morning I was dismayed when a news commentator suggested this,  “If Hillary could just find that person in her, who got teary in New Hampshire in 2008….”

He trailed off.

“Well,”  he went on,”Her popularity soared after that.” 

Suddenly, my Ralph Lauren boots felt tighter.

I happen to come from a curious background which foils the political divide in this country. I was adopted at 6-months-old, and my Irish Catholic father was a dyed-in-the-wool Eisenhower Republican.  He loved Ronald Reagan and disdained anything Kennedy. He was a World War II veteran with racist tendencies, saved mostly for Asians.  He was a product of his time, having served in China and never forgot Pearl Harbor.  At his funeral, there were a surprising number of people of color.  My father calibrated over his lifetime.  He was not perfect, but he evolved.

Of this I am certain; he believed that I could accomplish anything.  My father saw no glass ceiling for his daughter. He was a Republican and I loved him.  He was a gentleman who respected women. At his funeral, I gave a eulogy.  It ended thus;  I will miss my greatest cheerleader.

Uncle Bobby, as well, eschewed liberalism and clung to Fox News.  He knew I was a Democrat, but approached our differences with respect.  He watched this presidential nomination cycle with great interest in the last year of his life.  He didn’t much like Hillary Clinton, but never spoke of her with disdain.  For a time, he liked Ben Carson, and then “That Kasich fella seems good.”  He said this of Donald Trump, “Oh, him? He’s a clown.” Then, he leaned forward and whispered, “He’s a cuss.”  Uncle Bobby found our President-elect distasteful. 

In my fifties. I have come to know misogyny more intimately, though its forms are as amorphous to me as Chaplin’s makeup and as stealthy as his fluid movements.

Misogyny: Dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.

It can be hard to recognize. Sometimes it comes at you like a lamb, all soft and needy of nurturing, until you realize the giving is a one-way street.  When the jig is up, it moves on without compunction, like a parasite that has depleted its host.

Sometimes it comes as a labrador; a pal, a punch in the arm which anoints you as “one of the guys”.   Sometimes you get to hear the “locker room” talk, but be careful not to disapprove. With a wink and a smile, you might be reminded not to be too sensitive.   

In this Presidential election, misogyny came out like a tiger.  It was so obvious, it was nearly unbelievable.

It appears a lot of folks just don’t like Hillary Clinton or believe that she is  a “crook.” How  I wish I had not been so complacent before the elections.  I would have helped some folks out with a simple google search, and they could have unearthed in print and on video the President-elect’s quotes about women.  I would have told anyone who might listen to insert the name of their daughter,  wife,  mother, sister, or female friend.

If our African American President had said any of these things about women, I am sure he would never have been elected.  If Hillary Clinton had uttered the same kind of pejoratives against men I am certain she would not have been the Democratic Nominee.

My friends who voted for Mr. Trump are quick to tell me to relax, that this not a big deal. They tell me that it’s politics, a political divide between us, or that this is about the economy or a need for change. They tell me that he won’t be like that as President?  It’s just Donald, you know?  As though he is some irascible character in a prime time sitcom who just doesn’t have a darn edit button.

In 2016, I guess we still believe that boys will be boys.

They go round and round and round about emails and home servers in basements, and when they can’t quite drum up a character issue there, they pull out the big guns: Bill Clinton. It appears the  President-elect doesn’t have to take one iota of responsibility for his history of abhorrent behavior toward women. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton has to be responsible, ad infinitum, for her husband’s egregious mistakes, for which he was impeached nearly 20 years ago.  She must be exhausted.

President-elect Trump now gets his chance. I love Democracy and everyone’s right to support whomever they choose.   I have not once protested the election of a Republican President, and I won’t protest this one.  

In the meantime, won’t you help me explain to my very strong, independent, opinionated 17-year-old daughter, why misogyny just didn’t seem to matter in this Presidential election? Let her know that respect for her gender isn’t part of the litmus test in Presidential elections.  Boys will be boys, you know.  Just a fact of life here in the United States of America. 

Life felt lighter to me just weeks ago, on a crisp, clear Halloween weekend.  I’ll find it again I am sure.  In the meantime, be patient with me while I try to wrap my head around a great disappointment.

A friend sent me this stunning Charlie Chaplin Clip which is pure irony.  Enjoy.

My Immigrant Experience…

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It’s not my thing to take on the topical.  I am a storyteller, an observer of my own space and hope that my narrative resonates with others.  A confluence of experiences this month urges me to speak to something topical.  I will give my story-telling best to the effort.

My condominium is spacious.  It is also dated.  For the past two years, it has reflected my harried, not quite right life.  Reimagining my space seemed an important step in reimagining my life.  And so, I began slowly.  Sage green was the interior color of choice about fifteen years ago.  The previous owners of my condo seized the trend and I decorated accordingly when I moved in 3.5 years ago.  Sage green was getting on my nerves nearly as much as the walnut woodwork which surrounded it.  I have a lovely staircase which leads to three beautiful windows, their light obliterated by equally dated vertical blinds in a faux light brown tweed.

Three years ago I tackled the master bedroom myself – and doesn’t it always seem a good idea to do the painting yourself?  Halfway through my forearm ached, and the biblical Joseph’s coat had nothing on my painting jeans. The light brown with a hint of gold never quite thrilled me.

I treated myself to professional painters this time and they came by van, led by their boss,  a local friend of the Italian Catholic variety.  The workers themselves were Spanish speaking Guatemalan’s, Ecuadorians, and Mexican’s. They did the real work of painting my large family room, grand stairway, upstairs hallway, and bedroom.  Immigrants, each one. perhaps I should whisper, “I’m not quite sure if they were all legal.”

For four days, I was surrounded by drop clothes, ladders, and cans of paint.  My friendly Labrador loved the company and picked up the new shades of gray walls and white woodwork on his tail, ears, and whiskers while accepting endless affection from each painter. My typical background soundtrack is Broadway, but suddenly the sounds in my house had a salsa beat and lyrics foreign to my non-Spanish-speaking ears. For four days, my home was filled with light, laughter, and chaos.  The six immigrant workers were focused, meticulous, and happy. Their interactions with each other were easy and loving, like a band of brothers.   Furniture was hidden by plastic and moved to the center of the rooms and I had nowhere to sit, but it didn’t matter to me.  These worker bees were worth every penny, not just for their good work, but the happy spirit they brought with them.

In an effort to really make some changes, I had offered up a heavy dark wood desk for free on a tag sale site.  It was scooped up quickly and when the new owner arrived to haul it away, the two of us tried to move it. Our effort was pathetic. With lightning speed, two of the workers put down their brushes and bullied the oversized thing right into the back of her car.  She tried to slip them a tip, which they declined with humble smiles.

There is a certain presidential candidate who, had he known the scene in my condo, might have tried to erect a wall around it.

That leads me to my other place of immigrant interaction.  Like most of us, I seem to find myself at the same gas station several times a week.  Often, just for a quick diet coke, or emergency can of dog food.  There are two workers there who know I am a regular.  The first, a twenty-something Indian girl named Suman, studies at the register when the place is quiet.  Over time she has taken to calling me “beautiful lady”, and that has led to sharing bits and pieces of our lives.  She discovered that I am a College Counselor, and often peppers me with questions about her goal of becoming a nurse.  Suman is hungry to improve her lot and achieve beyond her current station.  I found out recently that she has taken a second job at a local deli.  Her work ethic astounds me. Suman’s hours are long, her dreams for herself imbued with enviable hope.

Jahir is my other gas station friend.  When I walk in, I am always greeted with a sunny, “Hello, Ellen.  How are you today?”  If I have been away, he might say, “I’ve missed you, where have you been?”   He is articulate, his English lyrical.  He often arrives at the gas station around 5 am, though I might not roll in until mid-morning.  I have never known him to lack energy or civility.  His heritage was not immediately clear to me.  It did not matter and I did not ask. On one occasion I overheard him being teased by a local young man.  An American young man, who was not kind, though he thought he was clever. He found his fun in Islamic and Muslim references.  Jahir took it in his stride, offering a vague nod and half smile.  When the young man left, I asked him, “Jahir, is that hard for you?”  He smiled broadly, “Don’t worry, it doesn’t bother me. It’s Americans, no harm.”  I have since discovered that Jahir is Tibetan, a Buddhist.  Hmmm…, may I please have an ounce of his peace and restraint?

Last week, I saw him reading something at the counter and asked about it.  It was a Christian Pamphlet, which mused about the need for Americans to get back to Church.  While explaining the content, Jahir paused, and said, “I don’t know about that, but I do wonder why everyone in this country seems so angry?”  There was no aggression in his question, not an ounce of judgment or implied criticism.  Only thoughtfulness.  I replied, “I wonder the same thing, too.”

I am sure that Suman and Jahir are legal.  I know that someday they will find work better suited to their ethic and intellect.

I want them to meet my other immigrant friend.

Today, Andrei, the Russian I so often refer to in this space, will officially become an American Citizen.  It has been 25 years since he arrived here from the then Soviet Union.  Beyond his dynamic persona, Andrei is one of the smartest men I know.  He speaks four languages and was a linguist and teacher in Russia, after serving in the Army.  Twenty-Five years ago, when he decided to stay, he began the arduous climb so many immigrants must. I have never, not once, heard him complain about work.  I hear Americans complain about work all the time.  If I was punching someone’s clock, it’s likely I would be complaining, too.

I will not be present for Andrei’s ceremony.  He would like to do it as he came to it, alone.  Someone has given him an American flag for his lapel, which he will pin on his freshly cleaned blazer.  Directly after his induction as a citizen, he will register to vote.  I can see him now, in my mind’s eye; shoulders straight, serious of purpose, proud that he has made this great country his own through grit and determination. I am so very proud of my Russian friend.

I am out of my depth in answers to regulating immigration so that it works for the benefit of this nation. I don’t pretend that my opinion really matters at all. All I know is that the immigrants with whom I am familiar are an inspiration and inform my life in a very positive way. I also know, that unless we carry Native American Blood, we are all of immigrant stock.  Perhaps a good thing to remember when the rhetoric gets hot.

My Wednesday Place…

 

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I have a Wednesday place.  I didn’t choose it.  Candidly, I was sort of go along to get along at the suggestion.  I feared that a ghost from another time might make it a place better left alone. Not engaging ghosts is tricky business in my small swath of the world.  I gave up a local tennis venue and regular supermarket. Short of moving away, I had little choice but to brave it. I did, one winter Wednesday night 18 months ago.

In the muddle of last year’s Rubik’s Cube of heartache and Uncle Bobby’s precipitous decline, weekdays felt no different than weekends.  Days raced and crawled into weeks and months and nothing about me resembled mindfulness.  Getting through each day without dropping a spinning plate was all I could muster. I wanted to settle deep into my couch and shut the world away. Somehow, in the middle of each week, my world found its pace.

In the midst of The Januarys, my beloved, incorrigible Russian friend offered a midweek answer to the doldrums.

The place is not really the story.  It is dimly lit and there is a maze of rooms to navigate. At its center is a weighty, oak, wrap-around bar whose equally heavy chairs invite you to sit for a spell.  On the far side are a dance floor and small stage.  My only other time there was spent on that crowded dance floor celebrating a love unexpectedly returned. It left again before I even had time to catch my breath.

Like with people, I am not so much for flash.  I crave the comfort that comes with knowing something or someone over time.  I am skeptical of nouveau. The feel of a well-worn moccasin will forever outpace the thrill of immediate infatuation with anything, human or not.  Too many of us seek freshness. Familiar and flawed is where I find my bliss. It is where interesting lives.

As I walk in each Wednesday night, it is reassuring to see that the cracked window at the entrance remains unrepaired.  Damaged but not broken resonates with me. I am equally glad to see the faces that make the core of us.  There is Andrei, of course, the de facto center of our group.  I often only see him on Wednesday and he never disappoints in enthusiasm. When he has a story to tell, he animates in extremis, all talking hands and punctuated speech.

Tina is there, too. Blonde and beautiful, she embodies the elusive confidence of thirty-somethings. I remember that surety in myself.  I love her bravado and candor.  She is Russian as well, and I laughed aloud one day while reading a text from her announcing our Wednesday place as “consistently inconsistent.” Those Russians love to craft their second language with cleverness.  She nailed it.

My Wednesday place began as we three.

My writer friend, Joanne, was a come-lately addition. Intrigued by my unbreakable Wednesday appointment, she is now a warm staple; apple pie and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on a crisp autumn night. She came just to see and hasn’t missed a Wednesday since.  Joanne trumps us all in warmth.

Dana is reliable, too. The mother of four, one doesn’t have to be prescient to know that she is also trying to find her life’s rhythm. One week she’ll grab the Karaoke mic, and the next she might quietly observe.  Mostly, I think she likes the promise of gathering with trusted souls.

Week by week our Wednesday place found its traction and others began to come, curious about our commitment to a well-worn place that promises little more than a finely poured beer.  The other cast of characters are “consistently inconsistent” in devotion. Some we already knew; some we are coming to know.  If life were a sitcom, my Wednesday place would have a continuum of guest stars, each one adding a different dynamic; their often-unexpected appearances adding to the shenanigans.

The left corner of the bar is our weekly goal.  Unlike weekends, when this place is packed, Wednesday is rarely crowded. Still, commandeering the left corner is never a given, more like a gift. It guarantees a flow of conversation and the best angle from which to observe the usually mediocre, but sometimes spectacularly great, karaoke which takes place in the vast space on the other side of the bar.  And yes, on occasion I lend my voice to the mediocrity. There have been epic failures like “Love Shack”, and a nearly acceptable rendition of “California Dreaming.”  The former all empty flash; the success of the latter owed to low register and subtle octave change. The B-52’s makes me edgy.  The Mama’s and Papa’s are comfortable personified.

Speaking of comfort, I have one more piece to add to the mosaic.  There is a bartender at my Wednesday place who is the most consistent of us all.  He is an Irishman with boyish charm; a peer for us in a place where a majority of the clientele need proper I.D. Over months, in small drips of conversation and revelation, he has become a part of us. He is an ear for the serious and the silly.  He has an intangible gift we all know, but struggle to incorporate. When he talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the room, like what you might be saying is important.

While tending to his work, he always finds a way back to our corner. There’s often a wink or a smile emanating from his warm, comfortable face and that tells me that he “gets’ our motley crew.  Perhaps, I romanticize the place. If I do, he’s part of the fairy tale.  There is no satisfactory substitute.

My favorite Wednesday night of the many was the first after the death of Uncle Bobby.  I extended my reach to invite friends to join me in memoriam.  They came and I traded my usual Stella for the Uncle Bobby preferred Guinness.  We toasted his journey, urged on by patient friends to share stores of him. Uncle Bobby would have loved my Wednesday place and all the people who make it so. Like the brown plaid blanket he placed across his lap, he would have worn this place with comfort.

Eighteen months have passed since Andrei’s suggestion.  He could not know then that his intuition would help heal a heart that felt like shattered glass or sustain me through the difficult walk I faced with Uncle Bobby.  I have no idea how long the Wednesday night ritual will continue. Life seems so expansive to me now, so filled with limitless possibility, that I can make no promises.

But, tonight I will be there; comfortable and grateful for friends and an unexpectedly special place.

 

High Loft

 

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It has been ten years of mounting loss: my mother, father, marriage, favored Aunts and Uncles with children of their own, and finally, the dearest bachelor Uncle who belonged mostly to me.  The cumulative weight of it all stole my footing, left me imbalanced and tired.

The first thing I did once Uncle Bobby took his leave was make an appointment with the sea: to think, to write, to breathe.

As I write this, I glance at the Horizon of Napatree Point, on the southeastern most tip of Rhode Island.  I hear fog horns, and the clang of ship bells.  The tide is low and so the waves do not pound, but rather lap rhythmically.  I haven’t breathed this easily in ten years.

I was plucked from a Catholic Charities orphanage in Saint Paul, Minnesota at six months old.  Louise and Bill Toole became my parents and brought me home to Rhode Island; the smallest of states which boasts a remarkable 400 miles of coastline.

Serendipity and the sea began for me at a very young age.

My grandparents had a home in Weekapaug, a tiny hamlet of Westerly, just north of Watch Hill. I didn’t know, when I was a girl, what a privilege it was to be by the sea.

Summers vacations were spent running up, down and around my grandparents seven-bedroom, clapboard shingled house on the shore at Weekapaug. It had a long front stairway which led to a sprawling porch a few hundred yards from the ocean.  On a clear day,  you could see Montauk Point.

My days began at the beach and ended tucked in, sunburned and sleepy in a tiny trundle bed, studying the sea glass I collected after dinner from the stretch of rocky shore in front of the house.  Blue, clear, dark olive green, turquoise, and brown. I would roll the smooth, opaque treasures in my tanned fingers as I drifted off to sleep enveloped in crisp, clean white sheets. The sound of waves was like a gentle lullaby.

That family home was sold sixteen years ago, forced by the complications of an aging generation and the next dispersed with their own growing families. The concept of a shared “family” vacation home became impractical. The sale of High Loft was heartbreaking.

I drove by that beautiful place last week, like some Peeping Tom not wanting to be seen, but wanting to see how our home weathered the last sixteen years.  I had done this drive of reminiscence before, but never when the new owners were home. Sure enough, a gentleman walked down the steps to see my stopped car and I felt “caught”.  Rather than move along, I took a chance and rolled down the window.

“Hello, I’m Ellen Toole”.

It took him but a moment to make the connection and he grinned,

“Well, hello there! Would you like to come in and see the place?”

Frank and Clare Toole had owned that marvelous home since the early 1950’s. Their name had not been forgotten.

I parked and walked up those wonderful stairs, as I had so many times, and saw that the home’s name was still in place: “High Loft”.  Rather than go right into the house, I walked immediately to the magnificent deck and was amazed to see that the green and brown wicker rocking chairs so familiar to me had been re-caned to perfection, and the wrought iron furniture of my childhood was still in place. In the center of the deck remained a vertical beam, which serves as the center hold of a circular table, painted hunter green still.

I could almost hear the chatter and laughter of so many summer nights spent on that deck. In my mind’s eye, I pictured my imposing grandmother in a colorful shift dress, and my elegant, sweet grandfather in a seersucker shirt, his wire-framed glasses suggesting dignity.  My mother’s laugh flooded my senses and I could almost see my dad, sipping a martini on the deck of the home he loved the most.

Adults with proper cocktails and the requisite cheese and crackers around 5 p.m.  Cocktail hour was a signal to the kids that dinner would soon follow.

As well,  the presence of Uncle Bobby was sharp.  He would stop there on occasion for a cocktail before heading back to Providence after a beach day in Misquamicut.  Uncle Bobby was an in-law, not a Toole.  But Grandma Barry, Aunt Rita, and he were always welcome and memorable visitors to High Loft.  The Barry’s and Toole’s were a model of melded families.

I entered the house from the back screen door, my unexpected host pleased to hear my rambling narrative of memories.  Each room brought a smile to me, so much of the home completely unchanged in the intervening years.  It was purchased “as is”, and so the kitchen and pantry were a special delight.

I spied an old-fashioned, red-trimmed glass maple syrup server often used for Saturday morning breakfast, and the dishes, with a soft pink floral design, remained unaged. Glasses, shelves of them, were the same as I remembered.

We worked our way upstairs, by the tiniest lavette I’d ever known tucked on the first landing, and then upstairs to the bedrooms which were frozen in time. The same beds, bureaus, mirrors and chairs, refreshed with new coats of paint. While in my time I’d slept in each room but the master, I hastened to my favorite: the first bedroom on the left.

That room had two things going for it: a lethally soft mattress which enfolded even the slightest body and a door which led to a porch.  As children, my brother, various cousins and I would sneak from that porch and climb the shingled roof which hung over the deck.  From that perch the view of the Atlantic Ocean was unparalleled and during cocktail hour you could safely eavesdrop on all adult conversation.  Climbing was taboo, but we rarely got caught.  If we did, it was likely that my dear dad would be sent up to retrieve us.  He would, with a wink and a smile.  It was just the sort of shenanigans that tickled him.

I’m not the first to revisit a childhood home and won’t be the last.  Regardless of any reality I’m missing, my childhood memories at High Loft are sacred.

The current owner was armed with questions about our history there.  I answered as best I could, but have no idea of my accuracy.  I’m a curator of family history, but my memories have a gauzy film; a soft lens which knows the soul of the place better than its bones.

I was called to task recently by an old someone I used to know that one of my innumerable flaws includes being “privileged”.

I would guess they’re right:  an orphaned child from Saint Paul, Minnesota finds her way to a loving family with a magnificent summer home by the sea?

Privileged seems the right word.  In my world privileged equals blessed.

As I walked to the car, the owner asked me to wait a moment and he raced up the steps to return with a piece of stationary featuring a pencil sketch of High Loft.  The sketch was done by my Aunt Jeanne in 1990 and was somehow left behind.  He handed it to me as a gift.  He was the perfect host.

I wasn’t in my old home more than thirty minutes, but I left warmed by the grace of my host and the sureness I have that High Loft is well loved and its’ history, honored.

My visit was an unexpected gift;  a great privilege.

 

Pots and Kettles..,

petard

And, I fail….

Often, I fall short of my best self; disappoint my positive self-perception. I don’t need to be reminded. It’s fair to say I am my own worst critic.  I’ve spent much of this past week in communion with my flaws, in reaction to a comment about my competitive tennis piece.

Perhaps you’ll indulge me.

A comment from a reader called Pot and Kettle initially made me smile. People who know me, know I have a soft spot for idioms. How clever of a reader of mine to one up me with one?  As I read, it became obvious the commenter was a familiar someone. In cleverly crafted prose, there was the suggestion that in my recent blog I had hoisted myself on my own petard; an idiom marvelously imagined by William Shakespeare.

I was quick to understand that They were the kettle,  and I, the pot.  It was an accusation that despite my public persona, I am a hurtful person.

Suddenly, the reading of comments lost their pleasure and self-doubt grabbed my heart. The Catholic girl in me chafed with guilt at the suggestion that I might be a hypocrite, a phony.

So here’s my first confession:  I recoil at criticism. In writers’ groups, on the tennis court, in the face of my seventeen-year-old daughter, criticism raises in me, first guilt, then instantaneous defense.  I might have become an attorney, so adept am I at swatting away its initial blows.

But here’s the other truth:  part of my mercurial personality comes with the guarantee that once the hot white spotlight of criticism fades, I am likely to ruminate in it, dig and pull at it incessantly to understand its source.  I can say with surety that more often than not criticism settles into a place where I give it serious study.  It is my nature to reflect on the good and bad in me and here is the not so grand:

I can be, in no particular order, judgmental, sarcastic, opinionated, and sometimes clever at cost to others. Let’s add that I might enjoy some gossip and sometimes that swagger I love morphs into an unearned feeling of superiority.

I am guilty in all those things. I have wonderful people in my life who have none of those flaws, save the gossip.  It is my experience that few of us are immune to that temptation.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it?  All of us walk around in this human skin which makes being our best selves, all the time, uniquely challenging.

However, there is nothing I write that is exaggerated or spun outside my truth. I write from my soul and I do not employ poetic license or seek to make my mark in creative nonfiction.  As a writer, one might call me a personal essayist.  I am not imaginative enough for fiction. The facts within my stories have credence because, to paraphrase the stunning Broadway musical Hamilton, “I was in the room where it happened.”

I do not seek to hurt.  Even in the weakness of my soul, or when anger inhabits my heart, I never take aim at someone’s achilles.  If you see yourself in my musings and the reflection doesn’t flatter, well then, it’s likely you behaved badly.  It’s also likely that I sought to diffuse, or make amends sometime after the dust had settled.

You will not see Pot and Kettle’s comment on this page.  I suspect the source, but cannot verify. The commenter posted anonymously using a hijacked email address.

Here’s another truth: if I have something to say to you, I will say it with my ‘owned’ voice.  People pretty much know where they stand with me. Want to poke at me, challenge my veracity?  I’m open to discussion and pretty easy to find.

If you have something to say, own it.  And for goodness sakes, my blog is not required reading for anyone.

A final thought: Anonymity is the righteous domain of good deed doers and philanthropists. It’s best left to them.

 

Me and My Hobby….

tennislab

I had an old friend who once loved competitive tennis and me.  During his meandering, protracted exit from us, he said in a pique of unexpected anger,

“You #%! @?!  people take your ‘hobby’ too #%! @?! seriously!”

There was purposeful bite in the delivery and the expletives were splendidly explicit. The purpose of the pronouncement was not really to mock competitive tennis, but rather to diminish me.

Diminishment of me sort of became his hobby for a memorable stretch of time. He took that pretty #$%*! seriously.

Every once in a while, the anthology of cruelty he built with words echoes in my brain; sneaks into my frontal lobe despite the good work I’ve done to exorcise it.  That’s the thing about words I guess; powerful, deafening bells that can fade in time, but the echo never really gets unrung.

Words, words, words…. That “sticks and stones” nursery rhyme? Pure poppycock.

I’m nothing if not painfully reflective, and so two years later I might adjust the missive to suit my own voice

“Aren’t you lucky to have a hobby that means so much to you!”

Damn Straight, I am!

I recently returned from the United States Tennis Association forty and over Sectional Championships, held North of the great city of Boston.  With ten incredible ladies well passed the 40-year-old mark, I took my place on indoor tennis courts which baked in their aluminum and steel coverings all day during this relentless August heat wave. No such luxury as air-conditioned indoor courts North of Boston.  I felt like a hot dog at Fenway Park, just sitting on one of those rolling griddles waiting to be plucked and put out of its misery.

And boy was it &#%!? fun!

I admit, USTA competitive tennis can seem a little nutty to the layperson’s eye, and perhaps some of us border on obsessive. But dadgummit, it is a rare joy at our age to compete athletically for something that means anything.  Candidly, it’s been part therapy for me as I have muddled through the last 2 years.   The tennis court is a place of peace from the perseveration of things over which I have no control.

And like love, serious often comes with unadulterated joy.

I am an athlete of the Labrador variety.  As a child,  I would chase or gather any orb in site.  Softball, basketball,  and golf were the choices in my athletic prime.  Tennis was just an entertaining way to while away an afternoon with my friends after the real games were done.

At 42, I turned to tennis when sports of my childhood became more memory than sensible reality.  The ladies and gentleman I play with on USTA teams are a raggedy clan of athletes who find that competing at this stage is worth every groan of lumbar or knee, every piercing pain that shoots through shoulders and elbows.   On the court, we feel young and tend to our aches with a gladiatorial pride that we ache at all; so happy we are to still compete.

I am also mostly Labrador in my everyday life; friendly, engaging, playful and approval oriented.  Once the sports bra and the nearly too short tennis skirt gets wrestled onto my middle-aged body, all bets are off.  When I take the court in a USTA match I am there to do one thing: to win.  I am helped a great deal to that end by an opponent’s bad line call or any hint of mental gamesmanship.  Any whiff of arrogance or unsportsmanlike behavior across the net from me and it’s GAME ON!  Once a match is settled, I revert off the court to my affable self.

I have a wonderful regular woman’s partner whose on court disposition is quite different from mine.  She loves a little chatter with the opposition on side changes and court controversy discomforts her.  Her game face demands peace and focus on that fuzzy yellow ball. She calms my fiery competitive core when it overheats, while I draw grit from her zen-like center when our backs are to the wall.   Accepting each other as we are leads to winning more than losing.

This is not to say my tennis life is all serious business.  Often, USTA matches in regular season are just plain fun.  Locally, I usually know and like my opponents and those matches can seem inconsequential and controversy free.  On those days, I marvel at the lot of we middle aged athletes racing forward and backward, side to side, chasing that fuzzy ball at endless risk of injury which might wreak havoc in our “real” lives. On any match day, a teammate might catch me doing a little salsa step on the court, cuz even when it’s intense, I never forget that it’s fun.

As well, this midlife foray into tennis has brought to my world people I might otherwise never come to know in my regular world.

I have USTA tennis to thank for unexpected friendships with international flavor: Russian, Indian, Moroccan, Japanese, Chinese, German, South African, British and Spanish. I count among my tennis pals: Nurses, teachers, businessmen and women, scientists, attorneys, allied health professionals, and many friends who are chief executives of their families.   They have all added texture and richness to my life off the court.

Hmm.  That’s some serious musing about a ‘hobby’, and maybe more metaphor about life than anything else.

As in life and love, commitment, dedication, investment, enthusiasm and stamina are noble attributes to apply.  The rewards generally reach beyond expectation.

Taking one’s hobby too %&#*! seriously might apply to risking your life to find a Pokemon. Tennis, golf, knitting, writing, and anything that constitutes a “hobby” deserves enthusiastic engagement. Otherwise, what’s the point?

My ladies team advances forward to next weekend’s New England Regional Championships with a shot at a spot to compete in the national USTA Championships late October.

What’s that I hear in the distance?  Hmmm, I think it’s the echo of that swagger I used to have, coming to find me.

Belittle my hobby all you want, but at 54 that calls for some serious %$@!* celebration!